Brief Report on the Concerning Arrest and Prosecution of 15 Human Rights Defenders

Hong Kong – On 18 April 2020, the Hong Kong Police Force arrested 15 human rights defenders for organising and taking part in unauthorised assemblies on 18 August, 1 October and 20 October 2019 respectively.[1] They will appear before the Magistrate on 18 May 2020.

The 15 arrested were: Au Nok-hin, Figo Chan, Albert Ho, Cyd Ho, Jimmy Lai, Martin Lee, Lee Cheukyan, Leung Kwok-hung, Leung Yiu-chung, Avery Ng, Margaret Ng, Sin Chung-kai, Richard Tsoi, Wong Ho-ming and Yeung Sum. They are political leaders, leaders of civil society organisations, current or former lawmakers, and owner of a pro-democracy media outlet.

Civil Rights Observer expresses concern over the arrest and publishes a brief report on the issue. As pointed out by the Special Rapporteur on the freedom of peaceful assembly and the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, the objective of prior notification procedures is to allow state authorities to facilitate the exercise of the right to freedom of assembly, and to take measures to protect public safety and public order. Any notification procedure should not function as a request for authorisation. No person should be held criminally or civilly liable for the mere act of organising or participating in a peaceful protest. (Note 1)

However, under the Public Order Ordinance of Hong Kong, a person may be subject to criminal sanction for the offence of “unauthorised assembly” if he/ she organises or takes part in a public assembly without notifying the police or without obtaining a notice of no objection from the police, even when the assembly is peaceful. The excessive restriction of peaceful assembly under the Ordinance is obviously inconsistent with international human rights law.

It is particularly concerning that five of the arrested human rights defenders are accused of “publicising unauthorised public meetings” in relation to their announcements before the protests. Civil Rights Observer believes the charges would hinder organisers of social movements from inviting the public to participate in peaceful demonstrations, which excessively restricts the freedom of expression and assembly. The tough maximum sentences would have a chilling effect on assembly organisers.

The Police objected to 21 marches and 26 public processions last year, which was the most in the past five years (Note 2). This shows that the Police use the notification mechanism to suppress the freedom of assembly.

“We are of the view that the arrest and prosecution of these 15 well-known leaders was a decision made not just based on evidence, but also with political considerations. The Police and the Department of Justice are trying to create a chilling effect,” said Icarus Wong and Andrew Shum from Civil Rights Observer.

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is closely following the cases and the Special Rapporteur on the freedom of peaceful assembly has expressed concern over the arrest and prosecution (Note 3). Civil Rights Observer urges the Hong Kong government to respond to the queries from local society and the international community.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has repeatedly criticised the Public Order Ordinance for not meeting international standards on the freedom of expression and association (Note 4). Civil Rights Observer calls on the Hong Kong government to immediately drop all the charges of the 15 human rights defenders, and propose amendments to the Ordinance in line with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights according to the recommendations made by the Human Rights Committee, to safeguard the citizens’ rights to the freedom of expression and assembly.

Our full report can be read at:

Note 1: Joint report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions on the proper management of assemblies (A/HRC/31/66)

Note 2: Security Bureau’s replies to LegCo members in examining the Estimates of Expenditure 2020-21 (SB134)

Note 3: See details below:

Note 4: Concluding observations on the third periodic report of Hong Kong, China, adopted by the Committee at its 107th session (CCPR/C/CHN-HKG/CO/3)

[1] The Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) had proposed the three marches mentioned above but they were all objected by the Police, the 15 arrested led or participated in the marches nonetheless. Three marches were peaceful in general, clashes broke out after the announcements of the end of the marches, and some were not on the route of the original march.

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